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Social workers 'overwhelmed' at crisis-hit council

Ofsted finds sharp decline at Northamptonshire children's services as sector leaders warn of national funding gap...

Ofsted warned mounting pressure on social workers at a cash-strapped council is leaving children at "potential risk" amid  warnings from sector leaders over a national funding shortage for children’s services.

After a visit in October inspectors found social workers at Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire council were "overwhelmed" and "drowning". Caseloads were “too high” and hundreds of children were still be to allocated a social worker, they added, after finding services had "significantly declined" over the past two years.

The Government sent in commissioners to run the local authority, which declared itself effectively bankrupt earlier this year. Spending watchdog the National Audit Office warned in March that a further 15 local authorities were at risk of following suit.

News of Northamptsonhire’s deterioration comes against growing evidence of the pressure on children’s services. East Sussex council recently set out plans to strip back its offer to the "legal minimum" as it scrambles to find ways of saving £45 million by 2021-22. If approved the proposals will see cuts to training for social workers and preventative work, saving £854,000.

Meanwhile a third year of overspend highlighted at Sandwell’s children’s services trust prompted council leader Steve Eling to warn: "The financial pressures in children’s social care are a national issue and need to be resolved by central government."

Earlier this month the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) warned “devastating cuts” to council budgets across England meant "the tipping point has been reached".

An ADCS report revealed 2.4 million people contacted children’s services last year because they were concerned about a child – a 78 per cent increase on ten years ago. The number of children on child protection plans rose 87 per cent over the same period while funding has dropped significantly in real-terms.

In the budget Chancellor Philip Hammond announced £410 million for adult and children's social care in 2019/20. Speaking at the National Children’s and Adults Services Conference in Manchester, ADCS president Stuart Gallimore said this was “nowhere near enough”. He said children’s directors felt their services alone needed an extra £840 million a year until 2020 just to “stabilise the ship”.

"We are deeply concerned at the Government’s piecemeal approach to funding children’s services. Small, ad hoc, short-term pots of funding from central government in response to single issues, made available for some but not all local areas, are particularly unhelpful and simply not good enough," he said.

"They fall woefully short of the sustainable and equitable long-term investment strategy we need to ensure that children receive high quality, safe services at the earliest possible opportunity."  

David Jones, BASW member and chair of Health Watch Northamptonshire, said the “sticking plaster responses” from Government failed to tackle “a major and growing social crisis the likes of which I haven’t seen in my lifetime”.

"The most desperate situation is we are seeing prevention and early help services being cut which will only lead to more problems. We are stacking up problems for the future," he said.

"In the budget the Government yet again capitulated to public pressure and proposed a tax cut. That is dishonest and fails to explain to people the cost of the services they want. There has to be an honest conversation with the public about the cost of health and social care."